The Klinsmann Conundrum

There I was, about to walk at my high school graduation, watching the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) play Ghana in the first game of the World Cup. June 16th, 2014. Clint Dempsey scores the first goal of the tournament for the US in the first 30 seconds of the game; I instantly look into the stands to find my family, all huge soccer fans, cheering with me. Later the US team went on to win the game 2-1, with Brooks scoring off of a header in the 86th minute of the game. I remember every detail of that day. Graduations are full of hope and a bright future, just like that first World Cup game, which was also Jürgen Klinsmann’s first World Cup game coaching the USMNT.

When Klinsmann first became coach, I was hopeful, expectant. He was one of the best forwards in Europe in his prime, and he took Germany to a 3rd place finish at the 2006 World Cup. He must be good, right? He’ll help us grow as a program and add some consistency for a few years to come. Now I want to set the record straight: I do not think that Jürgen Klinsmann should be fired. But I do think that we could be better than we are now, if Klinsmann sees the big picture of what is happening in the rest of professional soccer.

Klinsmann’s pedigree is not as impressive as it sounds. Klinsmann was one of the most prominent forwards of his day, playing for VfB Stuttgart, Inter Milan, AS Monaco, and Tottenham Hotspur. He also places 4th in caps and goals for the German national team. He returned as a coach to the German national team from 2004-06, when he finished 3rd in the 2006 World Cup. Germany hosted this World Cup, and with some of the most talented players in the world, finishing 3rd, I believe is a bit of an underachievement. He also coached Bayern Munich from 2008-09, and was not very successful posting a 25-10-9 record, with some of the best talent in Europe.

As for his tenure with the USMNT, he did get out of arguably the most difficult group of the 2014 World Cup. But his results have been inconsistent at best, with an abysmal performance from the team in the 2015 Gold Cup. He wins friendly matches against top teams, but not in big tournaments. He wins the games that he should win, but wins almost none of the games that are a bit out of reach.

But how much does coaching really matter in soccer? Don’t the talented teams and the talented players win out anyways? Chris Anderson, in a book called The Numbers Game, describes soccer through the lens of analytics. One of his conclusions is that a soccer team is only as good as the 11th player, as opposed to basketball, where a team (i.e. the Cleveland Cavaliers) is only as good as their best player (i.e. LeBron James). In soccer the best and most consistent teams are the teams with a great system.

Take Leicester City. It was 5 times more likely for Hugh Hefner to admit that he’s a virgin than for them to win the Premier League were 5000/1 at the beginning of the season. And yet, with less than 35% of the ball in a large majority of their games, they won the league. They did this through their organized counterattacking style led by Claudio Ranieri. Leicester City went from a team that barely escaped relegation in one season to winning the league in the next!

Another example is Atletico Madrid. A team with very little real talent compared to Real Madrid Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, and yet they took Real Madrid to penalty kicks in the final of the Champions League. With less talent, Atletico Madrid has consistently been competitive against some of the most talented teams in the world.

But probably my favorite example is that of Iceland’s Cinderella story in this year’s European Championships. They tied Portugal and Hungary, and beat Austria in their last group stage game. Then in one of the biggest upsets in the history of international soccer, they defeated England 2-1. Historically England does underperform in major tournaments, but considering Iceland’s coach is a dentist, I think we can all agree that no one saw it coming.

One ESPN writer, Nick Ames, describes the match: “despite surrendering huge amounts of possession, Iceland played the first half to perfection thereafter… Iceland were generally happy to hold off pressing until England neared the penalty area, holding two impeccably straight lines of four that moved in unison as if remote-controlled. Blocks, tackles and rotational fouls all rained in whenever they were exposed; it was not pretty, at times, but it certainly worked.” Iceland was the more organized team. They played as one unit. The person responsible for the organization and direction of the team is the coach. The team that Heimir Hallgrimsson, the Iceland manager, compares them to? Leicester City.

My whole point is this: I don’t deny the energy and positivity of Klinsmann and the USMNT, or their work ethic. But I do question the direction and organization of the team. Klinsmann, who played forward, does not seem to be defensive minded enough to realize that our talent will not be able to get us past the best teams. What will get us past the best teams is a defensive system based on smart, hard work, and working as a unit. In their semifinal game against Argentina, the USMNT looked completely out of sorts, with very little organization defensively, and almost no communication, particularly from Michael Bradley in the center of midfield, which is unacceptable from the captain and a veteran of the team.

If Ranieri and Hallgrimsson are able to win through better organization and with less talent, what excuse does Klinsmann have? I believe that we could be primed for a great World Cup run, if we simply saw some kind of system that is put into place and implemented over time.

On my graduation day, and as the 2014 World Cup cycle ended, the way we felt about our program was the same way I felt about my future: hopeful, expectant, and optimistic. But thus far we have been slightly disappointed. The harsh realities of life are starting to hit our young program. Klinsmann should not be fired, but the way soccer has been moving, one would think that less talented teams like ours would be looking at examples of Leicester City or Atletico and trying to emulate them, taking some of their ideas and applying them to our program. Our adolescent team is still growing, but with Klinsmann, that growth has been stunted and slowed.

Associate Contributor – Timothy Wood

Originally from Derry, NH, Timothy Wood is currently a student at Springfield College studying history and secondary education while also playing on the Men’s Soccer team, with plans to teach and coach at the high school or collegiate level.

Twitter: @TimothyWood05

Timothy Wood